THE BLOG
01/26/2009 12:50 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Can the Pentagon do Hope and Change?

Hope and change are a lot to ask for. How about a sign of cautious optimism instead?
Like fiscal accountability across all the government -- including the Defense Department. America's economic crisis demands that every federal agency cut back and sacrifice. The Pentagon is the most undisciplined of all our bureaucracies. Furthermore, we are paying too much for defense considering that we're not getting a 21st century security strategy for it. The department must act now to gain financial control of its operations -- which have been made worse by repeated supplemental war spending bills that receive very little scrutiny. The DoD's problems aren't completely of its own making. Rampant privatization, lax civilian oversight, a political climate conditioned by fear and a backward looking self-image have created the biggest single agency challenge facing the new administration. Like a trust-fund teenager escaped to Rome, the department has made a lifestyle out of self-indulgence. It's up to the Obama administration to prod it back onto a more responsible path.

It is in our national security interest to get the DoD's fiscal books in order. Secretary Gates will testify on Tuesday in front of Congress about defense priorities. Financial integrity should be the centerpiece of his testimony. The nation's economic crisis is a major incentive to identify savings in the Pentagon budget -- but the even bigger urgency lies in our inability to derive a modern strategy for our security as long as current unaccountable defense spending continues. I'm exaggerating to make a point, but we're still better prepared to fight Napoleon than Al Qaeda -- and Congress has yet to make the tough tradeoffs that today's threats require. Gates has already been a tremendous evangelist for re-balancing our national security tools (increasing diplomacy, preventive measures and economic support to reduce over reliance on the military). He even voiced a willingness to put part of his budget toward it. All of this has been a welcome message. On Tuesday, Secretary Gates should follow up on this generous offer by saying that the Defense Department is willing to draw the budget line at current services -- increased with inflation -- but no more -- until a strategy review has taken place.

Wonkish but important background: The Commander in Chief in a bind.

A few months ago, the military services made a deft political move by announcing that the projected defense budget must increase by around 450 billion dollars over the next six years above what they previously thought they needed. Keep in mind that -- since 2005 -- 20-25% of the resources for Defense have not gone through any normal budgeting process. But this latest budget demand may well include an additional 70 billion over the Bush administration's 2009 numbers. This total amounts to a 10% budget increase embedded in the 2010 budget. This is just a "wish list" -- the planned budget has not been seen outside the Pentagon and has not been reviewed by the Office of Management and Budget. Again, this is a document that has been seen by few, and has never been submitted nor even "scrubbed" by budget officials. President Obama's policies have had no influence over it. And even more, this increase in the regular budget was prepared along with the knowledge that we'd have yet another war supplemental. The reason it is so important to put this on the table now and scrutinize it openly is that the amount agreed to over the next 30 days -- for 2010 -- will represent what budgeteers call a "topline" -- a critical benchmark. The amount put forward in the first year will be the measurement for all subsequent decisions about defense budget priorities and spending. President Obama is in the delicate situation of needing to reign in the defense budget produced by Gates when he worked for Bush. And the conservative echo chamber is already cranking up the vintage wurlitzer with talking points about weak, anti-military Democrats. For the sake of our nation's security, these voices should be disregarded.

Under any circumstance, it is difficult to criticize defense spending. Even more when our country is a lead player in two wars. Our military is tired and its stuff is worn out. Everyone is talking about the need to "re-set". But let's be honest, it is shocking that -- at 700 billion dollars a year and counting -- the DoD can still claim to be a victim of budget scarcity.

Reforming defense spending will be a long term process that will require order and discipline. A big step forward would be for the president or Congress to appoint an independent panel to investigate defense spending -- composed of individuals who do not stand to profit from their participation. On Tuesday, Armed Services Members could ask some questions that:

1. relate your own excellent roles and missions report to budget choices
2. make sure the DoD is not exempt from the financial accounting required in the Chief Financial Officers Act of 1990
3. suggest something like the following requirement:

"Any DoD component, project, program, activity, contractor, etc. whose books do not receive a clean audit (i.e. they pass) will receive one year to fix problems, prepare for a re-audit. Flunking the second time will result in a suspension of new funding for that program, activity, etc."

This is something most of us had to do with our first checking account in high school.

Disconnect between strategy and spending.

An honest budget debate would wedge open a long overdue conversation about American policy. What should our military be doing in today's world? Preparing for conventional conflict? For more counterinsurgency? Why is the DoD accruing so many responsibilities that should belong to the State Department? Do we need some new institutions? Will the State Department step up? Military blogs are abuzz over hybrid warfighting challenges that will require a mix of both conventional and counterinsurgency tactics. The common theme to all this insider discussion is that well-trained people are going to be more important for our national security than machines or fancy technology.

We're going to have to realign spending priorities to achieve this. Even with that, its going to be expensive (diplomats, translators, technical assistants, an Army that can prevent genocide).
And its not like the military itself hasn't tried to change the policy terrain. The "Long War" which was part of the Global War on Terror -- implied a universal battlespace. For the past 8 years, this could have been a way to justify changes to military priorities and budgets. (to recognize the limits of military force, for example, and plan accordingly) But instead of shocking us all into a new dimension of warfare,with ascendant diplomacy, intelligence and economic policy -- it muzzled debate, scared dissenters and lost friends. The USA went from being the world's deal maker to its biggest rule breaker.

When it comes to defense spending, Congress doesn't even seem to be paying attention to the relationship between the weapons and the forces we buy and the foreign policy and national security goals we are trying to achieve. Despite valiant attempts by individual Members -- there are still no venues inside Capitol Hill that bring together a comprehensive viewpoint (i.e. joint hearings with foreign affairs and defense, a special committee that can consider holistic themes). The broken acquisition process which shovels money into the blast furnace of defense contractors just makes this strategic blindness worse.

Note to congressional leadership: one way to get your vision back is to open up the rules and encourage a real defense budget debate. The last vigorous and open discussion on this budget happened in the 1980s -- and hundreds of amendments were allowed. The more Members are encouraged to put it all out there, the more comprehensive our security policy will be, the safer the American people will be. And that's the point, right?

Complicated and costly weapons have created a public-private bureaucracy that not only confounds our military establishment -- it actually prevents us from building an effective fighting force. Where Congress is concerned, it creates a perverse incentive: strive for the biggest budget irrespective of whether or not it meets a strategy goal. This defense worldview is so rationalized that just this morning I heard another ad on NPR -- paid for by the aerospace industry -- shilling its weapons as a jobs program. And last month, in a feat of shameless ideological skinny dipping -- the Wall Street Journal jumped into this nonsense with an article suggesting defense spending is a fine economic stimulus.

The administration is "committed to a review of each major defense program in light of current needs, gaps in the field, and likely future threat scenarios in the post-9/11 world." Let's hope this starts on Capitol Hill tomorrow.